On top of the Mount

On top of the Mount
Mount Maunganui, NZ

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Sunday, April 10, 2016



The guy with the light-brown hair. It's his fault. From a distance, I catch a half-second glimpse of Sean. Fancy meeting my late husband in New Zealand at his ten-year-old's school swimming day.

Not-Sean clambers up the steep bleacher seats at the Mount Maunganui College pool, just feet from where I sit. I steal a glance, and of course, he looks nothing like Sean. Only the color of his hair and maybe the outline of his nose is faintly reminiscent. It's enough to send my fingers digging into my purse like a dog scratching for lost treasure - only I'm looking for a tissue to dab my watery eyes and blow my nose. Sunglasses help.

So it happened, on this sixth year after Sean's death that I'm crying at the pool. It's a little more than a month after the anniversary of his death. For the first time, I forgot about January 23rd, oblivious to its significance as I enjoyed the waning days of the grandparents' visit with us and the end of the kids' school holidays. What could we have been doing that was so important, to make me forget? I check my calendar: I ran in the morning, had lunch with Dad and Kathe at Tay Street, played on my paddle board and hosted Jo and Rob for dinner. 

In other words, nothing catastrophic happened. Has that day become nothing special?

I watch Finley get trounced in his first heat, swimming three lengths of freestyle against classmates he says are nationally-ranked in their age group. The next races happen against regular boys, and Finley wins his heats racing one length of freestyle, breaststroke, and backstroke. Each time, he emerges from the pool and climbs onto the bleachers to see me, and after a while, when Pete arrives, to see his stepdad, too. I give Finn thumbs up. "Well done, Sweetie. Proud of you." 

Within the past month, my give-it-a-go guy has lost a consolation round at a tennis tournament to a kid who hyperventilated, then took a 20-minute time out before returning to the court to beat Finn (players are only allowed three minutes for time out before the other player wins by default); he wasn't chosen for a squad to play soccer in Australia; and he narrowly missed getting into his school's fun day sports competition. He needed this victory day.

His dad didn't get to see Finley's wiry, brown body dive too deeply at the start but still comfortably win his breaststroke leg; he didn't see Finn touch the wall or trot over to recount his achievements and ask for snacks. Sean didn't see it. But I did - and that makes me happy. And sad.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Nearly Dry

Nearly Dry
January was wet, wet, wet...

It’s the first of March. This means I can let myself drink alcohol again. I spent the month of February dry. That’s not entirely true – I did, after all, give myself a hall pass Waitangi weekend (Feb 6-8), indulging in a glass of sparkling wine after a 24-kilometer (15 mile) relay run and two glasses of white wine on our wedding anniversary the following night. My big, boozy weekend. 

Over summer, a pattern had crept in – I’d have a drink almost every day. Granted, that drink was often light (2.5% alcohol) beer or a small glass of wine. But I was consistent, and Iooked forward to that drink. While I like to think I'm a Midwestern-born moderate, if I had to categorize my relationship to alcohol on Facebook, I’d say, “It’s complicated.” It’s fun to feel the effects of a couple drinks. It sucks to see the effects of chronic use in people I love– lost dollars, increased weight, accidents, illnesses, break-ups, hours of lost sleep and squandered opportunities at the altar of the Almighty Drop. 

For five years, the New Zealand Drug Foundation ran a campaign called FebFast, where Kiwis took part in a month-long non-drink-a-thon to raise money for organisations working on alcohol and other drug issues. The Foundation has quit doing the campaign (citing ‘limited resources’), but some of us still use the shortest month as an excuse to abstain. https://www.drugfoundation.org.nz/febfast

Kiwi culture is bathed in booze. It might slowly be changing, thanks in part to a new law reducing legal blood alcohol limits for driving (from 400 mcg per liter of breath to 250 mcg for those 20 years old and over) more than a year ago. The government late last month reported Kiwis consumed less alcohol last year, but the same number of drinks. We’re still drinking, but knocking back less beer, wine and hard stuff. Gin and whisky are so 2005. 


 We have more choices now – two-thirds more low-strength (2.5%) beer was available in 2014 than in 2013. You’ll find more flavored waters in stores than you can shake a toilet brush at, and ordering a mocktail at a bar is no big deal.

This is fine if we choose to test our mettle, asking: can I celebrate without alcohol? (I failed twice at this task in February, but also succeeded twice). Be angry or down without alcohol? (a definite yes for me, though I cringed when a neighbour reported taking his frustrations out on the fridge, meaning he’d had a bad day at work and felt the need to down something cold and fermented). I’ve done this small abstinence exercise before, and each time I’m reminded of the momentary discomfort of declining a drink. Living with healthy discomfort - like risking rejection, running faster, even disciplining our kids - makes us stronger. Booze can be the pacifier we turn to for solace, for company, for commiseration and celebration. All too often, our ‘mate’ leaves us lonely, fat and broke. Some friend.

The problem with dry months is people most likely to do them are least likely to need them. If you rely on a daily beer, wine, whisky, gin – it’s improbable you’ll stop, even for a single week. “I’m not an alcoholic because I don’t attend meetings; therefore, I don’t have anything to give up” is how I picture the thought bubble above the head of someone who depends on that daily drink. Screw you and your sanctimonious seven dry days. 

Why bother? Limited evidence shows taking part in a dry month challenge could lead to long-term changes in drinking patterns. A study looking at 857 UK adults taking part in Dry January found two-thirds of participants successfully gave up drinking for one month. Successful abstainers and those who did not succeed had increased powers of abstinence and reduced consumption patterns up to six months later. There’s hope for slackers like me.  http://www.nhs.uk/news/2016/01January/Pages/Dry-January-can-lead-to-healthier-drinking-patterns-long-term.aspx

Working on a feature article about craft brewing this week, I got to taste three different kinds of beer on March first, breaking my (almost) fast. The beer had heaps of hops and much malt, so a little went a long way. I can drink to that. Or, choose not to.

Have you ever had a dry month? How was it?

Monday, July 13, 2015

Whipped and Chained

Whipped and Chained

“When are we gonna be there?” asks Fiona. “Can we get out?” asks Finley. I don’t know, and yes. We’re driving from a lodge in New Zealand’s central North Island – in Ohakune – to the ski field at Mt Ruapehu called Turoa. It’s early in the season, but there’s enough snow (81 cm) to ski. First, we must get there. We navigate three kilometers of the 17 kilometer (about 10 mile) road without a hitch. I snap photos of snow-covered pine and fern trees. We never see snow at sea level, where we live.

The road gets icy, and a line of cars forms. The Ohakune Mountain road becomes a parking lot. It’s a barely-moving conveyor of cars and minivans unequipped for these conditions. The road requires either four-wheel drive or tires (tyres) with chains. We have neither. Actually, we have a four-wheel drive sitting in the garage. It’s part of Pete’s collection of possibly useful items which mostly sit in our garage.

We’re in Pete’s work car – a Toyota Camry hybrid, which must wait like all other unsnow-worthy vehicles – for chains. Pete doesn’t know anyone who uses snow tires (tyres) on the North Island, because aside from mountain areas, there’s no snow.

The kids and I leave the car to stretch while Pete sits in the line-up. Finley power lifts a chunk of snow and ice the size of his head, heaving it over the side of a cliff. Fiona scoops small pieces of snow and later accompanies Finley so he can urgently wee on a tree. We finally reach the front of the line. Pete pays $30 for chain rental and installation, and two young people (one of whom is eating a sandwich), spend five minutes wrapping chains around the car’s two front tires (tyres). Pete suggests I reach into the glove box and grab two treat-sized chocolate bars I bought for him to give the chain gang. Fiona and Finley excitedly hand them out.

Somewhere between the start of the line-up and the chain installation, I get a text message. It’s from a woman I respect and admire and wish I knew better. She tells me, after I call, she needs to stop doing the thing she’s been doing for us (which I’m not mentioning because I don’t know how public she is about her illness) because her cancer is back. It has spread to her liver and lungs. I tell her how sorry and sad I am and ask the standard questions, ‘what next?’ and ‘what can I do?’ while feeling helpless, hopeless and shitty. I’m still annoyed at the parking line up and devour a bag of homemade trail mix while thinking about the evil ways in which our bodies are whipped and chained.

Why does everyone get cancer?

They don’t. It’s just so in our face, like crumbs in a toaster; confusion at the checkout counter, or the maniac riding the rear bumper. But cancer is more than omnipresent annoyance. It’s omnipresent killer. It robbed the planet of my Aunt Cheryl (aged 64); it threatened my mom (at age 55); and seems to constantly re-jigger its regimen seeking younger prey: who doesn’t know someone who has died before hitting 40, or even 30? Cancer has invaded the beautiful mind of my sister-in-law, who just turned 49. Our generation should be renamed - those of us born in the 60’s and 70’s aren’t Generation X, we’re Generation C – the cancer generation.

I feel weird writing about cancer because I don’t (yet) have it. Part of why I feel so helpless and hopeless and yes – relieved it’s not yet me – is because cancer may be the ticking time bomb that crouches in the closet of our colons, hides beneath the pillows of our breasts and nestles in the neurons of our brains. Sun causes cancer. Inactivity causes cancer. Too much food causes cancer. Every frickin’ thing we do (or don’t do) causes cancer. It makes me want to drown my sorrows in a fish bowl of red wine. But that causes cancer, too.

Here’s the thing: despite the viciousness of disease, despite its perspective-enhancing efficiency, small things still get to me. Like waiting in a line-up for two hours for tire (tyre) chains.

Try making sense of the senseless: when’s the last time hearing someone had a life-threatening illness made you think, “He’s an asshole, anyway. Probably had it coming…”

I’m waiting…

I popped over to a friend’s Facebook wall before sending her a message. My friend recently lost a friend to breast cancer, someone I didn’t know. The woman wrote this post before she died:

"I didn’t nearly get my “snow fix” this year, but I feel fortunate that I have been able to enjoy the warmer temperatures and spring light. Spring reminds me that life is juicy and resilient, but also fragile. It has been wonderful for me to have my family around so much these past few weeks, although it has been difficult and sometimes tearful. Don’t wait until the conditions are perfect, but rather try to make space in your life for things and experiences that really matter to you. Appreciate your health and all the other blessings that we often take for granted."I didn’t nearly get my “snow fix” this year, but I feel fortunate that I have been able to enjoy the warmer temperatures and spring light. Spring reminds me that life is juicy and resilient, but also fragile. It has been wonderful for me to have my family around so much these past few weeks, although it has been difficult and sometimes tearful. Don’t wait until the conditions are perfect, but rather try to make space in your life for things and experiences that really matter to you. Appreciate your health and all the other blessings that we often take for granted.I didn’t nearly get my “snow fix” this year, but I feel fortunate that I have been able to enjoy the warmer temperatures and spring light. Spring reminds me that life is juicy and resilient, but also fragile…Don’t wait until the conditions are perfect, but rather try to make space in your life for things and experiences that really matter to you. Appreciate your health and all the other blessings that we often take for granted” (with gratitude to the late Maria Rabb).

Conditions at the Turoa ski field were far from perfect (icy, rocky…), but I found pockets of powder. Moments of joy when my ski-shod legs did as my helmeted head instructed. So far from perfect, this messy life. It's too brief not to fixate on Finley’s freckle spatter; Fiona’s fringe of lashes; the tiny scar our puppy left on Pete’s cheek. Too brief not to run, cycle, ski – and write. Just for fun. Just for me. And if you related to any of this, just for you, too.

What are you making space for in your brief life?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Getaway - Shelly Beach


It started well, the week-long family holiday I’d planned nearly a year ago. Pete piloted our packed-to-the-rafters minivan up the western side of the Coromandel Peninsula, along a wiggly coastal drive hugging shimmering blue vistas. I napped during the first 20 or so minutes, which Pete claims was most spectacular. “You missed the best part,” he said. What I did see was turquoise-blue water so close I could throw a stone into it, and mountains flanking the other side.
Shelly Beach, Coromandel

We stop at the (packed) Coromandel Mussel Kitchen about three hours into our trip. We wait 45 minutes for mussel chowder (Fiona) a side salad plus mussel pot spiced with fragrant green curry (me); corn dogs (Finley) and a burger, which, including the bun, is nearly the size of a human head (Pete). We (adults) each enjoy a mug of the Mussel Kitchen’s own Pilsner beer. I surrender a $100 note and get $7 change. For lunch.

Another ten minutes up the road, just past Coromandel Town, is the Shelly Beach Top Ten. I’d researched the holiday park on Trip Advisor and called the office three times before booking. I wanted a budget option that wouldn’t require our nonexistent tent. Our family believes anything with communal kitchens and bathrooms is camping.

Back in January, the manager (Kay) convinced me to take a lodge room at $115/night, rather than a kitchen cabin at $140. She said the lodge room would be bigger than the cabin. This sounded  strange, but we’d stayed at other Top Ten parks in units, rooms and cabins and had never been disappointed.

We get a key for room 12. It contains a double bed and a twin bunk set into the wall. It has a closet where we can stash three bags of canned and dry food, towels and extra bedding. There’s just enough room for a chair beside the bed. I pay $650 cash for the balance of our stay (Pete just sold his car and we brought some proceeds). Our family of four has committed to seven nights in a small box. At least it has a view of the bay.
View from the lodge at Shelly Beach Top Ten

The kids run off to bounce on the jumping pillow, Pete naps and I wander to the shell-filled beach to ponder my poor planning. Memories of Ewa Beach (which must be one of the worst neighborhoods to stay on Oahu, Hawaii http://pickendawn.blogspot.co.nz/2013/06/pit-bull-paradise.html  flood my head like high tide slamming the shore. Pete appears and says, “I don’t know why she told you the lodge had more room. That’s ridiculous. We can’t stay here seven nights.”

“I’m sorry. I really am. I don’t understand it, either.” My contrition is sincere. So are my doubts about whether my husband can survive semi-camping. At home, his head is bent over his phone whenever I enter a room. My beloved answers every ping, ding and whistle as if poised to perform an organ transplant. He’s either held captive by Apple or Netflix or something else on a screen. We’re too far from technology. Our family vacation is about to crash and burn.

“I didn’t bring you here to make you miserable,” I say. We have cell phone coverage, but the connection is slow. Maybe we’ll stay three nights and leave…

We sashay around the lodge kitchen, borrowing plates, pots and utensils from the shared stash. A European cyclist at the counter beside me paws knives and forks before returning them to the tray and selecting another set. Behind the sign instructing us not to prepare or consume meals in the lodge, a woman sits at a coffee table covered with lettuce and dumpling wrappers. She folds each one methodically before arranging it on a tray.

I join the kids at the jumping pillow, where a dozen children bounce. One of the youngest kids, a blondie of about three with crew cut, spits. Children shout, “He just spitted! Ewww!” I look up from the picnic table where I’m sitting and glare. “Do that again and I’ll tell your parents,” I growl.

Pete and I make pizza in a half-working oven, to-ing and fro-ing around other guests in various stages of cooking: filleting just-caught fish, prying sea urchins, grilling burgers, burning fries. Pete and I start eating while Fi and Finn play, washing down slices of pepperoni, mushroom and red pepper with full tumblers of white wine.

At the next picnic table, a large woman wearing a see-through beach cover over bikini top hums loudly. It reminds me of an opening scene in “Orange is the New Black,” where an inmate sings in the shower. Just then, a woman wearing bright orange sweat pants walks past. “You know, there is a kind of prison vibe here,” I say, as man with gray stubbled face and tattooed neck crosses the courtyard. Pete says, "Yeah, but there's more space in the jail cells." Another man wearing dark shades in the twilight stares at me. Not a ‘nice to meet you stare,’ but one that barks, ‘I don’t like you.’ Maybe I’m imagining things. The stare, though, is real.

Our lodge room is stiflingly hot. Pete says not to open a window until we’re ready for bed, because the light will attract bugs. We sit outside for fresh air. And the sound of heavy metal emanating from a car parked near a tent site. I recognize a Motley Crue song from my high school days. “They’re probably people from the West side of Auckland,” Pete later explains. “They’re called Westies, and they’re still 30 years back in time.”

The music is so frickin’ loud, I walk to the office to see if I can get the manager to tell them to turn it down. “I was just over there and didn’t hear any loud music,” she says. Nevertheless, she rounds the lodge, walks to the Westies and tells them to turn it down. Now I can hear them arguing. “Well, you fucking told me…” And then, “Fuck you, motha fucka…” Thankfully, the kids aren’t around to hear.

Around ten o’clock, Finley returns to the room. He’d been playing spotlight (flashlight tag) with other kids. Fiona and I brush our teeth together in the tidy communal bathroom while Pete and Finley do the same on the men’s side. Pete later tells me each stall ‘was disgusting.’ I don’t ask for details.

Finley shares news after we’re together in our lodge room. “There was a fight in the kitchen,” he says. “They were using bad language.”

We turn the lights off and open a window. It’s still hot. I read aloud two stories from my Kindle for the kids. I hear Pete breathing heavily, dozing, before the end of the second story. Sleep doesn’t last long. Between music on one side of our room, loud talking on the other side and lack of ventilation, Pete and I fail to convince the Sandman to stick around.

We plead our case at the office the next morning, saying there’s no way the four of us can sleep in that room another six nights. Despite the sign saying, “No refunds for early check-outs,” Kay is polite and sympathetic, returning all but $50 of our money.

We pack and leave in a hurry. I’m giddy, listening to Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Getaway” en route to Whitianga, on the other side of the Coromandel Peninsula. Sometimes, you must get away from your getaway.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Deflowered in the Forest

                  Deflowered in the Forest

The pros, Vicki and Donna

Virgin no more. To the sport of mountain biking (abbreviated as MTB), that is. How did I make it 44 years without ever trying MTB? Because it seemed counterintuitive to bring a bicycle into the forest and ride through tight spaces, mud, roots and trees. Because I like cycling flat roads along the beach on my gear-free lavender Schwinn. Because I like knowing I won’t plunge off a cliff (unless I attempt something supremely stupid such as texting while riding, which I’ve seen other cyclists do).

I shelved my fears to mountain bike with two of my Jogger mates, Donna and Vicki. Both are experienced riders who offered to show me the ropes and not leave me, bruised and bloodied, on the forest floor.

We drove about an hour south, to Rotorua, which is the ‘spiritual home of mountain biking in New Zealand,’ according to http://www.riderotorua.com/.  The 130-kilometer Whakarewarewa and Redwoods Forest network is one of the oldest trail systems in New Zealand.  Dirt, mud and bark-covered paths wind through Larch, Douglas Fir and California Redwood trees.  

A Little History...

http://redwoods.co.nz/ says the forest opened to the public in 1970 and was sold to Fletcher Challenge (a now-defunct multinational construction, forestry, building and energy company, according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fletcher_Challenge) in 1996. Forest assets were split and sold again in 2003. Mountain bike trail access and building were regulated the following year, with the Rotorua Mountain Bike Club serving key roles in trail maintenance and development. The Rotorua District Council overtook forest management in 2006. Forest land was returned to Maori in 2009. Today, the Redwoods is maintained by the District Council and the Whakarewarewa Forest continues to be managed by Kaingaroa Timberlands. http://redwoods.co.nz/about/

The upshot of all this back-and-forth is  MTB trails are free to the public, but some areas close intermittently for logging.

There’s an information center, toilets and pay showers at the trail head. More importantly, there’s coffee.

Learn and Make Tracks

I borrowed one of Vicki’s old bikes, a sturdy bulldozer with knobby tires and gears that changed with a finger flick. Getting the gears right was tricky, at first. I couldn’t remember up and down. Several tries, and I (mostly) got there. You know you’re in the wrong gear when you’re grinding uphill and suddenly can’t budge. 

We started on the Creek Track, rated easy.  I hopped off the bike a couple times ahead of steep chutes, including two that crossed the creek. The riderotorua site says even “skilled riders have come to grief on these technical sections.” Sheesh. No wonder. Easy?

The first half hour required tremendous concentration. For those of us with spinning monkey brains (a.k.a. mothers) this is disconcerting. There was no thinking about what to cook for dinner or which emails needed returning, only a steady pulse of thoughts like, ‘Watch the tree on your left; there’s a mud patch ahead; oh, shit, that drop is steep. Brake, brake, BRAKE!’

“You’re really quiet back there,” says Donna. “It’s kind of eerie.”

I’m concentrating. It’s MTB Zen. Until I fly over the handlebars. I’m determined to keep the bike under me, rather than behind me, at least during this first attempt.

Dips and drops ebb, giving way to a flat zig-zag of single track covered in rich red mulch. Just before we reach the end of this track, two skinny Asian tourists, one with a large camera around her neck, appear.

Donna tells them, “It’s not safe to walk on the bicycle path. You could get hurt. Best sticking to the road.”

They look surprised and ask for further directions before we pedal away.

We grind up a wide gravel road and enter a stump and matchstick patch of cleared forest. Gray stumps and logs litter the ground, detritus divided by dirt bike tracks. No longer under the tree canopy, I survey the scene, trying to determine which route might be easiest and safest.

Channeling my Inner Eight-Year-Old

“Let’s try this,” says Vicki. She’s chosen one of the Challenge tracks, a grade three (out of five) trail that runs nearly a kilometer through stump land. We won’t attempt Down the Guts (grade four, advanced) or Boulderdash (grade five, expert). Not today, anyway.

“We’ll see you at the bottom,” says Donna. “Remember, it’s not a race.”

Deep breaths. I shove off, flinging myself and the bike down a dirt path that looks more motocross trail than mountain bike track. I ease off the brakes. You need enough speed to mount hills before hitting the table top plateaus. At the crest, you drop again, gaining speed. My eight-year-old, Finley, would love this. 

I love this - wide open spaces and the feeling of flying. It reminds me of skiing. Mountain biking combines the adrenaline rush of the slopes and exhilaration of navigating twists and turns – minus cold and snow. And trails have cool names.

We tackle two Challenge tracks – the second is nearly half a kilometer longer and just as fun. Donna and Vicki wait for me at the end. My mouth widens into a Joker smile the whole way down. Even though I’m not nearly as fast as my friends, I enjoy the circus of gravity and the sense of adventure that comes from trying a new sport.

We return on a track called Dipper (grade two, easy), where I can nearly relax and enjoy scenery beyond what's two feet in front of me. I later read it’s an iconic trail, flat, fast and wide, suited for families and beginners. It meanders through forest and finally, Redwood trees. I lose the track twice, bouncing over small logs marking trail boundaries.

“You trying to escape on us, Dawn? Going back to the car park?” jokes Vicki.

Don’t be silly. Because I don’t know where the car park might be from here.

Donna suggests I pick a line and stick with it. “What you look at is where you’ll go,” she says.  She’s right. That, and the advice to build a stable platform on the downhills by holding my feet evenly on the pedals, helps.

I survive two hours of climbing and whizzing, arms shuddering, thighs contracting, before we reach the end.

I’m pleased. Nothing's broken; I kept the bike under me and had a hell of a time.

MTB virgin no more. I’ll be back.

Me and Donna at the end

Cyclist Selfie

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Queen for a Day

                             Queen for a Day

It’s September 5th in New Zealand (still the 4th in the States). My birthday. I thought I might brush this one off. I’ve been grumpy. It’s been six weeks since the Husband got laid off. Neither of us knows what’s next, so we’re living in limbo with my knee-jerk panic and sense of frustration we haven’t figured this out – yesterday.

Earlier this week, I told Facebook: forget my birthday. Changed the setting so no one can attach September 5th to me. Except my family and close friends, including my running mates, who know this day is mine. But why should legions of people online, many of whom I don’t know personally, know it’s my birthday? Who needs well wishes from around the world?  Apparently, me.

I had a change of heart last night and whispered to Fb: “Go ahead, tell my friends about the birthday. Google was going to let the cat out of the bag, anyway.”

I set my alarm for 5:30 this morning. I hit snooze once, popping up at 5:40. I check my phone and see an email alert from my friend, Leanne, whose birthday is close to mine (tomorrow? Gosh, I’m horrible remembering birthdays!). My fellow Virgo is one of the most thoughtful people I know (she’s also a talented TV reporter in LA: http://abc7.com/about/newsteam/leanne-suter/ )

My day’s already off to a good start, since I’m thinking of Suter (we all called each other by surnames at the TV station where we met in Grand Rapids, Michigan). I check her anonymous Facebook profile to see if I can suss out her birthday. The only picture she’s tagged in shows a Superman doll sitting in Sean’s hospital room, plus pictures of Fiona and Finley I’d taped to the wall. Leanne and her then-husband had sent Superman to help Sean heal.

I slip into the next room – a spare bedroom/office, where I press my phone’s meditation app, which is set to chime after seven minutes. It’s about all my monkey mind can handle. During these seven minutes, I listen to the ocean outside the windows, think about what I want my birthday to mean and say nice things to myself. I’m a slightly-less-geeky version of the SNL character Stuart Smalley, who says, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” Unlike Stuart, I do not practice before a mirror.

Gray wisps of cotton wool feather the skies over the Mount beach as I pound the sand for a five- kilometre run. My left knee’s still a grumpy old man – he feels about 84-years-old, while the rest of me feels 24. I’d be in better shape now – at 44 – than I was twenty years ago, if it weren’t for the achy, possibly torn bits of tendon scratching about the inside of my knee. No sunrise run up the Mount this year.

There’s no sun, anyway. Day breaks without the orange fire ball rising from the Pacific. Seagulls skitter at the shoreline and squawk overhead. None of them bombard my head. This is a good sign. I pass a man walking two German shorthair pointers. Another sign. They remind me of my dogs, Greta and Baron, growing up. One dog ran away and the other was hit by a car.

After the run, I’m clambering up the narrow wooden spiral staircase from the garage when the kids yell, “Don’t come up! Close your eyes!”

I drop the empty recycling bin and do as instructed. “Here, put this in front of your face,” says Fiona, holding a newspaper. She walks me to the dining room table and says, “Okay, open your eyes.”

“Surprise!” shouts Finley, Fiona and Pete. The kids motion to the table, while my husband places strips of uncooked bacon into a large pan with surgical precision.

Cards, flowers, a bottle of bubbly, two small boxes of chocolates and a bag with Fiona’s writing sit atop the dining table. My eyes well. Such care and planning to have it all here at seven a.m. I take turns giving my family sweaty hugs. I open the card from Pete first. Inside is a voucher for a white water rafting trip. He listened when I told him, “No electronics. Nothing useful.” Just an experience with him.

Finley’s card includes a coupon for laundry soap, candy, four dollars in change and a 20-dollar bill, which I return to him.

Fiona’s present is a red plush doll made of felt whose stitching is starting to unravel between the legs. “I made it in my spare time,” she says. “I even brought it to school.”

I shower and get dressed while listening to my favorite radio show, "This American Life." The episode called “Back to School” http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/474/back-to-school talks about how children learn. And how they don’t learn if they grow up with chaos and stress at home. I think about my kids’ early years and develop a new theory: maybe the kids have attached so well to Pete (despite what Fiona says, she adores him) because they felt so much love from Sean. Their father gave them security from birth. Their stepfather will provide stability throughout their lives.

Pete serves me a microwaved egg on toast with coffee and bacon. It tastes like a weekend morning. Like love.

After breakfast, the kids decorate cupcakes for a school celebration. Apparently, today is also the birthday of their mascot, Mountie. Fiona and Finley spread the cupcakes with green icing which they layer with sprinkles, M&M’s and lollipops. I drive them to school. The last glimpse of my small fries is Fiona ahead, Finley walking behind, carrying an ice cream container of cupcakes, wearing a black cowboy hat. They fought about who would wear the black hat.

What else do I want to do on my day? Write. This blog is an indulgence, one I don’t allow myself as much as I’d like. I’m in the middle of listening to a podcast called, “Our Friend David,” http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/472/our-friend-david 
which I pause. It’s impossible to concentrate on my own pithy prose while listening to a genius like (the late) David Rakoff who wrote about chicken poop as “olfactory insult.” I’m sad he died of cancer in 2012 at age 47. Just as I was sad to learn Joan Rivers died today at age 81.

Rakoff and Rivers endure not in heartbeats and breaths but in words. Which is part of this birthday writing exercise. Long after my ashes have blown off the Mount, disappeared over Spokane Falls or dissipated into Lake Erie, my words will remain – for everyone who chooses to read or ignore them. Happy birthday to me – cheers to what we keep: love of words. Words. And love.

 *Note: I downloaded the This American Life app from iTunes for $2.99 and got the whole podcast library.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Make Up Meatballs

     Make Up Meatballs

There are times in your life (or in your month) when make up relations - I mean, talking, isn't practical. Or your partner won't go there. To the couch, I mean, to talk. That's when you must pull out Make Up Meatballs, especially if watching “The Godfather” on TV has inspired you to cook spaghetti. I won't bore you with reasons behind the need for making up. But lately, it feels like someone's swapped my Pinot Gris for pickle juice. The husband's been equally joyous at my even-temperedness and grace. Rather, he’s less-than- thrilled by my lack of both. As Forrest Gump said, "That's all I have to say about that."

I will, however, give you the recipe for Make Up Meatballs (which Pete cooked and I named). They work a treat when served with a steaming tangle of spaghetti, buttery garlic bread and a green salad and broccoli (the last two cleanse the palate between the second round of bread and sauce). 

Saute garlic in a teaspoon of olive oil. Add a couple tablespoons of canned tomato and garlic pasta sauce (I used a 420-gram can of Pam's tomato and garlic).
Scrape garlic and sauce mixture into a slow cooker with a can of chopped tomatoes and the remainder of the pasta sauce.
Add mixed Italian herbs and a splash of red wine.
Simmer, covered, on low for at least 4 hours along with meatballs (recipe follows).

One-half kilo (1 pound) of ground beef (called mince in NZ)
1/4 cup milk 
½ cup bread crumbs
salt and pepper to taste
teaspoon minced garlic
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup  mozzarella cheese
Italian herbs

Mix mince with all ingredients at once (Pete says, "I threw it in together and mixed it up like Playdough").

Fry meatballs in a "tiny bit of oil" (for Pete, that equates to 3 tablespoons) on  medium heat for 5 - 10 minutes. Let sit 10 minutes, then add meatballs to the slow cooker sauce.

Serve over steaming spaghetti and use to sop up garlic bread. Serve red wine to the adults.

Take your time eating this meal and see what develops. After 15 minutes, the meatballs take effect and your significant other will start talking about how everyone at the table can do nice things for each other. He may even nod as you recite one of the Mom Commandments: "If Mama's not happy, nobody's happy." 
Fiona likes sauce on the side
Mama's happy. Kiss and Make Up the Meatballs, Hon.